‘Ihave clandestine conversations with supposedly nonexistent personages,’ Alicia Western tells her psychiatrist in Stella Maris, the second of two novels by Cormac McCarthy published this autumn. The leader of these phantoms is called the Thalidomide Kid. He’s a bit over three feet tall (Alicia measured this by comparing their shadows), has a bald and scarred head and flippers for hands. ‘He looked like he’d been brought into the world with icetongs,’ McCarthy writes, the implication being that no one would want to touch him. Among his retinue are an old toothless man who seems to be Alicia’s great-grandfather; a pair of dwarves; an old woman smeared with rouge; a couple of blackface minstrels in overalls, straw hats and ‘enormous yellow shoes’; a diminutive boxer; and a ventriloquist’s dummy. These hallucinations begin for Alicia, then called Alice, at age twelve and ‘the onset of menses’, and the nightmare variety act continues until her suicide on Christmas Day 1972, in the woods outside Stella Maris, the Wisconsin psychiatric clinic where she has been a patient for two months. The Kid is vulgar and obnoxious. He calls her ‘Birdtits’, among other insults. He taunts her about her family, her studies in mathematics, her plans to kill herself. He is a nasty imp made weird by modern science. His companions are a manifestation of old-time American culture as a malignant freak show. Going on as long as they do, these psychic torments take on the quality of the familiar. To her psychiatrist, Alicia speaks of them as everyday facts, if not exactly friends.
Scenes of Alicia’s visitations also appear in The Passenger, but the book belongs mostly to Alicia’s older brother, Bobby Western, and most of its narrative takes place in the early 1980s. At first it seems to be a thriller. The story follows Bobby over a few years, with cuts back in time to the scenes of Alicia’s hallucinations. These flashbacks are presented at the start of each chapter in italics, an uncharacteristic typographical flourish for an author who mostly eschews punctuation beyond commas and full stops: no semicolons; no question marks; apostrophes deployed selectively. In the present of 1980, Bobby is working as a salvage diver in New Orleans. A job sends him to the submerged wreck of a plane that has crashed in the Gulf of Mexico: the wreck seems to have been tampered with, a body removed, before Bobby and his diving partner reach it. Bobby’s connection to the plane seems to attract the attention of unsavoury characters, who sack his apartment. He is also being hounded by the IRS, who seize his bank account and place a lien on his Maserati. He goes underground and lives for a time in a beach shack on the Gulf Coast, where he is visited by the Kid, who takes a call on a phone he keeps in his coat about a decade before the spread of mobiles (never mind that he is a hallucination who properly belongs to Bobby’s dead sister). He spends a winter in Idaho, living like a bum in a farmhouse without electricity belonging to a friend of his father’s. He goes to Stella Maris, and picks up the necklace Alicia was wearing when she died. He returns to New Orleans, and then goes to the Balearics, where his father died seeking a quack cure for cancer. He speaks to a ghost and ponders his own death, knowing the last thing he sees will be his sister’s face. Despite the title, we never learn the identity of the missing passenger. For hundreds of pages that mystery has been pretty much moot.
The first page of Stella Maris is a clip from Alicia’s case file recounting her admission to the clinic: ‘Patient is a 20-year-old Jewish/Caucasian female. Attractive, possibly anorexic. Arrived at this facility six days ago apparently by bus and without luggage.’ It notes that she brought a plastic bag with more than $40,000 in $100 bills and ‘is a doctoral candidate in mathematics at the University of Chicago and has been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic with a longstanding aetiology of visual and auditory hallucinations’. It is her third visit to the clinic. The rest of the novel consists of dialogue between Alicia and her doctor, Michael Cohen, taking place over several sessions in the weeks leading up to her suicide. By comparison with The Passenger, with its cryptic lapses into memory, dream and flashback and all its dangling plot threads, Stella Maris is alarmingly straightforward. It’s not exactly convincing as a conversation between a doctor and his patient. More often it reads like a conversation between a candidate for a postdoctoral fellowship and a less than competent job interviewer. Or it could be a cosmological comedian and her perfect straight man. Here is Alicia describing her idea of the universe after reading Berkeley and Kant:
One of the things I realised was that the universe had been evolving for countless billions of years in total darkness and total silence and that the way that we imagine it is not the way that it was. In the beginning always was nothing. The novae exploding silently. In total darkness. The stars, the passing comets. Everything at best of alleged being. Black fires. Like the fires of hell. Silence. Nothingness. Night. Black suns herding the planets through a universe where the concept of space was meaningless for want of any end to it. For want of any concept to stand it against. And the question once again of the nature of that reality to which there was no witness. All of this until the first living creature possessed of vision agreed to imprint the universe on its primitive and trembling sensorium and then to touch it with colour and movement and memory. It made of me an overnight solipsist and to some extent I am yet.
How old were you?
I doubt that McCarthy has ever been to therapy, which here takes the form of an eccentric genius being questioned on her intellectual development, her theories of reality, her correspondence with famous mathematicians – and the implications of all this on her psychic life and her visitations by supposedly non-existent personages. There are moments of real human interaction. ‘For all the bleakness of your views,’ Cohen tells Alicia late in the novel, ‘you really don’t present as clinically depressed.’ ‘I know,’ she replies. ‘You said. My cup runneth over.’ Alicia asks Cohen about his life: he is remarried to an Italian woman called Edwina who once divorced him, and they have two children. When the subject of her own love life comes up, she describes a sexual awakening she experienced in the hallway of her high school.
But she is at first coy to Dr Cohen about the object of her longing: Alicia is in love with her brother, Bobby, who is also in love with her. Though this state of things is burdensome to both of them, it’s not something they try to understand, much less get over. (Nor is the affair consummated, except in a dream that ends with a dead baby.) Alicia eventually discloses it to Cohen, in the face of his stupefaction. In The Passenger, it’s common knowledge among patrons at the bars Bobby frequents in the French Quarter of New Orleans that he still holds a candle for his dead sister: no point making a play for him. Another thing everybody knows about the Western siblings is that their parents worked on the Manhattan Project: they were born at Los Alamos. They are also Jews, though this fact came as a surprise to their mother’s family in rural Tennessee. When a teenage Bobby traced the clan’s origins to a Jewish woman from Romania who arrived at Ellis Island in 1848, their antisemitic great-uncle tried to kick him out of the house. None of this explains why the siblings are so weird. Explanation isn’t the business of these novels.
The siblings’ backstory is doled out across The Passenger and elaborated on in Stella Maris. Their father was a physicist who studied with Einstein at Princeton until he was drafted into the war effort. This took him to a nuclear materials facility in Tennessee. There he met their mother, a ‘calutron girl’ working at Y-12, a plant for the electromagnetic separation of the uranium 235 isotope. After their divorce, both parents died of cancer. It was around this time that Alicia was first visited by the Kid. In 1968, their paternal grandmother died, and Bobby dug up a fortune in gold coins buried in pipes beneath the cellar of the family home in Ohio. He moved to Europe to become a Formula Two driver. He crashed a car and went into a coma. Alicia refused to take him off life support, but returned to America, and to Stella Maris, convinced her brother was as good as dead. As it turns out, he recovered, and she in her despair did not.
The Passenger is a richer novel than Stella Maris in that it takes in more of the world, the sensual and the social. Bobby’s diving, his wanderings along the Gulf Coast and his roamings around North America offer great scope for McCarthy’s powers of description. Underwater in the wrecked plane, Bobby ‘kicked his way slowly down the aisle above the seats, his tanks dragging overhead. The faces of the dead inches away. Everything that could float was against the ceiling. Pencils, cushions, styrofoam coffeecups. Sheets of paper with ink draining off into hieroglyphic smears.’ Hiding from the IRS on the Gulf Coast, Bobby goes for walks along the shore: ‘Where he walked the tideline at dusk the last red reaches of the sun flared slowly out along the sky to the west and the tidepools stood like spills of blood.’ For long spells McCarthy’s concrete lyrical sentences are mesmerising and have the effect of putting Bobby’s troubles – the dead sister, the missing passenger, the frozen bank account, everything closing in on him – out of mind. Against these landscapes, Bobby is a hardboiled hero out of Hemingway or 1940s Noir. When we see him in his spartan quarters, he pets his cat and answers the questions of federal agents laconically. ‘You have a peculiar sense of humour, Mr Western,’ they tell him after he asks to see their badges a second time on their way out. ‘I know,’ he says. ‘I get that a lot.’
The descriptions are interposed with extended conversations between Bobby and a series of characters who flash across the book for pages and then vanish, to return or not. These passages reminded me (perversely) of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy: disconnected encounters that cast a glancing light on Bobby’s character, his sympathy, his curiosity, while revealing little about him directly. Oiler, Bobby’s fellow diver, tells of his combat service in Vietnam: ‘I was there to inflict painful death myself and that’s the only reason I was there.’ Bobby asks him what he regrets and he replies, ‘All of it.’ Asked for something more specific, he recalls murdering elephants from a gunship: ‘They’d just fucking explode. I think about that, man. They hadn’t done anything.’ Debussy Fields, a trans woman who performs at a New Orleans nightclub, tells Bobby over lunch of her beatings at the hands of her deceased father, her alcoholism, and her transition: ‘Some girls are happy just to do the hormone thing and keep their you-knows. But gender has meaning. I want to be a woman.’ There is a barfly who talks to Bobby about physics and a private detective with an eccentric JFK assassination conspiracy theory.
John Sheddan, a lowlife of Bobby’s long acquaintance who forges prescriptions and deals drugs, puts it to Bobby that they have something in common:
I know that you think we’re very different, me and thee. My father was a country storekeeper and yours a fabricator of expensive devices that make a loud noise and vaporise people. But our common history transcends much. I know you. I know certain days of your childhood. All but weeping with loneliness. Coming on a certain book in the library and clutching it to you. Carrying it home. Some perfect place to read it. Under a tree perhaps. Beside a stream. Flawed youths of course. To prefer a world of paper. Rejects. But we know another truth, dont we Squire? And of course it’s true that any number of these books were penned in lieu of burning down the world – which was their author’s true desire. But the real question is are we few the last of a lineage? Will children yet come to harbour a longing for a thing they cannot even name? The legacy of the word is a fragile thing for all its power, but I know where you stand, Squire. I know that there are words spoken by men ages dead that will never leave your heart.
More interesting than the sentimental evocation of reading as an activity that sets lonely children apart (‘Rejects’) is the conception here of authors as would-be ushers of the apocalypse. That books themselves are pregnant with the urge to burn down the world would seem to be part of their appeal. Bobby doesn’t reply but merely watches ‘him eat with a certain admiration. The enthusiasm and the competence with which he addressed matters.’ Like many remarks in these books, delivered in apparent jest or mock solemnity, Sheddan’s words are part of a larger thematic schema that equates language with the destructive power of fire and the bomb.
The Westerns ’ fairy-tale family story is both a departure from McCarthy’s previous ten novels and an epic that nods to all of them: the creeps who tread on Alicia’s psyche are echoes of his early Southern Gothic phase; the violence in New Mexico and Bobby’s roaming across America gesture towards the Westerns he wrote in the 1980s and 1990s, Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy; the pseudo-thriller narrative of The Passenger at first raises expectations that we will be in for something like No Country for Old Men or The Road (a book in which McCarthy himself conjures an apocalypse). No such luck, especially in the department of narrative satisfaction. And at least parts of these books may predate No Country and The Road. In his 2017 study of McCarthy’s influences, Books Are Made Out of Books, Michael Lynn Crews writes that a draft of The Passenger has been under seal at Texas State University for years. The New York Times reported that the manuscript of Stella Maris and a partial draft of The Passenger were submitted to Knopf in 2014. For decades, McCarthy has been affiliated with the Sante Fe Institute, a research centre devoted to the study of complex adaptive systems. In 2016 he published his only work of non-fiction, ‘The Kekulé Problem’, an essay on the origins of language and the unconscious. The unconscious, he wrote, ‘is a machine for operating an animal’. Alicia says the same thing in Stella Maris:
Psychiatrists have trouble dealing with the unconscious in a straightforward way. But the unconscious is a purely biological system, not a magical one. It’s a biological system because that’s all there is for it to be. People arent happy talking about the unconscious unless there’s a certain amount of hokum involved. But there isnt. The unconscious is simply a machine for operating an animal. What else could it be? Most of what we do is unconscious. Turning chores over to the conscious mind is a risky business. Whales and dolphins have to time their breathing to their surfacing. So of course when they were first anaesthetised for surgery they simply died. Which should have been predictable. The unconscious evolves along with the species to meet its needs and if there’s anything spooky about it it’s that it sometimes seems to anticipate those needs. It cant afford surprises. It’s one of the things that troubled Darwin. But the souldoctors dont get any of this. They’re Cartesian to the bone.
Note the playful contempt for psychiatry in ‘souldoctors’, with their insufficient understanding of the unconscious. In ‘The Kekulé Problem’, McCarthy asks why the chemist August Kekulé discovered the configuration of the benzene molecule in a dream of a snake eating its own tail (he woke up exclaiming: ‘It’s a ring!’). ‘The problem of course’ – McCarthy writes, ‘not Kekulé’s but ours – is that since the unconscious understands language perfectly well or it would not understand the problem in the first place, why doesn’t it simply answer Kekulé’s question with something like: “Kekulé, it’s a bloody ring.” To which our scientist might respond: “Okay. Got it. Thanks.”’ Instead the unconscious speaks to us in pictures in our dreams. It’s also the part of us that does mathematics, according to McCarthy.
It’s thus tempting to see Alicia and to a lesser extent her brother as conceptual characters dominated by the unconscious. Alicia is a world-class mathematician, a discipline that in McCarthy’s view mostly depends on the workings of the unconscious. Further she is harassed and kept company by the Kid and his companions, creatures of the unconscious. The Kid may speak to her but what he says is largely slang, rhymes and other seeming nonsense. ‘He’s no more mysterious than the deeper questions about any other reality,’ Alicia says. ‘Or mathematics. For that matter. Forms turning in a nameless void.’ She cites Jung: ‘Aberrant mental states may not be in themselves an illness but rather a protection against a greater one.’ The greater one would seem to be ‘the fires of hell’ Alicia glimpsed aged twelve. She knew then something ‘my brother did not’ (because he wasn’t as talented a mathematician): ‘That there was an ill-contained horror beneath the surface of the world and there always had been. That at the core of reality lies a deep and eternal demonium. All religions understand this. And it wasnt going away. And that to imagine that the grim eruptions of this century were in any way either singular or exhaustive was simply a folly.’ These visions of Alicia’s have something in common with Kekulé’s dream. Cohen asks her if Bobby worried she was crazy:
I dont think so. But it could be that the more he thought about it the more concerned he became that maybe I wasnt.
That the news could be worse?
Maybe as in what if she is right.
According to Alicia, the love between the siblings is a matter of mutual recognition in a world where neither of them otherwise belongs. ‘I knew that I wasnt supposed to be in Wartburg Tennessee and I thought it possible that Bobby had found where it was that I was supposed to be. Where we were supposed to be.’ She names the mountains of Romania. ‘For how long did you entertain this fantasy?’ Cohen asks. She replies: ‘I entertain it yet.’
Her comment suggests that the motive of her suicide might be to join her brother, whom she has taken for dead, and that the act is something beyond her free will. Bobby’s realisation that he is in love with his sister, when he was a grad student and she was thirteen, is similarly presented as something beyond his conscious reckoning: ‘Watching her that summer evening he knew that he was lost. His heart in his throat. His life no longer his.’ What he is watching is Alicia performing the role of Medea, alone and in costume, on the floor of a quarry, lit by smoky homemade kerosene lamps. It’s a powerful image and one that comes completely out of the blue. There is another temptation for the reader: to connect these children and their behaviour to their father, the bomb maker, to see the bomb as something that emerged from the collective human unconscious, something animals made while tending to their own survival. Alicia tells Cohen that ‘anyone who doesnt understand that the Manhattan Project is one of the most significant events in human history hasnt been paying attention. It’s up there with fire and language … and it may be number one.’ As for its makers: ‘I think most of the scientists didnt give that much thought to what was going to happen. They were just having a good time. They all said the same thing about the Manhattan Project. That they’d never had so much fun in their lives.’ Some have their fun actually burning down the world, others write novels.
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